The Way to Deliver Bad News Tips

images-14ving feedback to your employees, particularly when their performances fall short of expectations, is one of the most critical roles you play as a manager. For most people, it’s also one of the most dreaded. Such conversations can be very unpleasant—emotions can run high, tempers can flare. And so, fearing that an employee will become defensive and that the conversation will only strain the relationship, the boss all too often inadvertently sabotages the meeting by preparing for it in a way that stifles honest discussion. This is an unintentional—indeed, unconscious—habit that’s a byproduct of stress and that makes it difficult to deliver corrective feedback effectively.

The good news is that these conversations don’t have to be so hard. By changing the mind-set with which you develop and deliver negative feedback, you can greatly increase the odds that the process will be a success—that you will have productive conversations, that you won’t damage relationships, and that your employees will make real improvements in performance. In the pages that follow, I’ll describe what goes wrong during these meetings and why. I’ll look in detail at how real-life conversations have unfolded and what the managers could have done differently to reach more satisfying outcomes. As a first step, let’s look at the way bosses prepare feedback—that is, the way they frame issues in their own minds in advance of a discussion.

Framing Feedback
In an ideal world, a subordinate would accept corrective feedback with an open mind. He or she would ask a few clarifying questions, promise to work on the issues discussed, and show signs of improvement over time. But things don’t always turn out this way.

Let’s consider the following example. Liam, a vice president at a consumer products company, had heard some complaints about a product manager, Jeremy. (Names and other identifying information for the subjects mentioned in this article have been altered.) Jeremy consistently delivered high-quality work on time, but several of his subordinates had grumbled about his apparent unwillingness to delegate. They felt their contributions weren’t valued and that they didn’t have an opportunity to learn and grow. What’s more, Liam worried that Jeremy’s own career prospects would be limited if his focus on the day-to-day details of his subordinates’ work kept him from taking on more strategic projects. As his boss, Liam felt a responsibility to let Jeremy know about his concerns. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

Liam: “I’d like to discuss your work with you. You’re doing a great job, and we really value your contributions. But I think you do too much. You have some great people working for you; why not delegate a little more?”

Jeremy: “I don’t understand. I delegate when I think it’s appropriate. But a lot of people in this company rely on quality work coming out of my department, so I need to stay involved.”

Liam: “Yes, and we all appreciate your attention to detail. But your job as a manager is to help your employees grow into new roles and take on more responsibility. Meanwhile, you’re so focused on the details that you don’t have time to think about the bigger picture, about the direction you’re taking this product.”

Jeremy: “That’s not true. I’m always thinking about the future.”
Liam: “I’m just saying, you’d have more time for strategic thinking if you weren’t so mired in the day-to-day stuff.”

Jeremy: “Are you saying I’m not a strategic thinker?”

Liam: “You’re so busy dotting every i and crossing every t that I just don’t know what kind of thinking you’re capable of!”

This type of exchange is surprisingly common. Each side pushes his point of view more and more aggressively, and the conversation escalates until a relatively minor difference becomes much more dramatic. (For a visual representation of a deteriorating discussion, see the exhibit “Scripted Escalation.”) Often, as Liam did in the preceding conversation, one person or the other unintentionally says something overly critical. Of course, it may not get to that point—one or both parties may choose to give in rather than fight. But either way, escalate or fold, the subordinate probably hasn’t accepted the news the boss set out to deliver. Managers tend to attribute such nonacceptance to employees’ pride or defensiveness. Indeed, it’s not unusual for people to feel defensive about their work or, for that matter, to hold inflated views of their performance and capabilities. But more often than not, the boss is also to blame. Let’s examine why.

Whenever we face a decision or situation, we frame it, consciously or not. At its simplest, a frame is the decision maker’s image of a situation—that is, the way he or she pictures the circumstances and elements surrounding the decision. The frame defines the boundaries and dimensions of the decision or situation—for instance, which issues will be looked at, which components are in and which are out, how various bits of information will be weighed, how the problem might be solved or a successful outcome determined, and so on. Managers tend to frame difficult situations and decisions in a way that is narrow(alternatives aren’t included or even considered) and binary (there are only two possible outcomes—win or lose). Then, during the feedback discussion, their framing remains frozen—unchanged, regardless of the direction the conversation takes.

In anticipation of the conversation with Jeremy, for example, Liam framed the problem in his mind as “Jeremy’s too controlling.” This is a narrow framing because it excludes many alternative explanations—for instance, “Jeremy would really like to hand off some responsibility but doesn’t know how and is embarrassed to acknowledge that.” Or “Jeremy is actually delegating as much as he can given his subordinates’ current skill levels; they are frustrated but really cannot handle more than they do.” Or maybe “Jeremy is delegating quite a lot, but Frank and Joan have some other ax to grind.” Liam may be making matters worse without realizing it by sending Jeremy mixed signals: “Empower your subordinates, but make no mistakes.” We don’t know for sure; nor does Liam.

Operating from this narrow view, Liam also approached the discussion with a binary framing that leaves both parties with very little room to maneuver: “Jeremy must learn to delegate or we’ll lose Frank and Joan—and meanwhile, he’ll burn himself out.” Last but not least, Liam’s framing remained frozen throughout the exchange despite clear signals that Jeremy was not buying the feedback. At no point was Liam processing, let alone addressing, Jeremy’s objections. It’s no surprise that the meeting ended badly.

Dangers of Easing in

After they’ve had a few bad experiences delivering narrowly framed feedback, managers tend to fall back on the conventional wisdom that it’s better to soften bad news with some good.

They try to avoid uncomfortable confrontations by using an indirect approach: They make up their minds about an issue and then try to help their employees reach the same conclusions by asking a carefully designed set of questions.

At first glance, this type of “easing in” seems more open and fair than the forthright approach that Liam took, since the manager is involving the subordinate in a conversation, however scripted. But like the forthright approach, easing in reflects a narrow and binary framing that typically remains frozen throughout the process. Indeed, there would be no need to ease in if the manager were approaching the conversation with a truly open mind. And easing in carries an additional risk: The employee may not give you the answers you’re looking for.

For example, Alex, an executive at a pharmaceuticals company, had some difficult news to communicate to one of his subordinates, Erin. She was a middle manager at the company and did an excellent job handling her department but was not contributing satisfactorily to a companywide task force chaired by Alex. Erin was remarkably silent during the meetings, which led Alex to conclude that she was too busy to participate fully and had little to offer the group. Alex’s solution? Take her off the task force so she could focus on her primary responsibilities. But because he suspected Erin would be hurt or insulted if he suggested she step down, Alex hoped to prompt her to resign from the committee by asking her a series of questions that would make her see she was too busy to continue. Let’s look at what happened.